Climate change threatens future Winter Olympics venues

Memorable host cities for the Winter Olympics wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of reliably hosting a Games in the next few decades amid climate change, according to a new report.

Temperatures in past Olympics host cities to climb 4.4 C in late century

Global warming is progressing at such a rate that scientists say many previous sites of Winter Olympics would be too warm to host a Winter Games by the last half of this century. (Dominic Ebenbichler/Reuters)

Memorable host cities for the Winter Olympics wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of reliably hosting a Games in the next few decades amid climate change, according to a new report.

At the rate the Earth continues to heat up, only six of the last 19 Winter Olympics locations would be cold enough by the end of this century to stage the Games, the joint Canadian-Austrian study says.

A new joint study from Canadian and Austrian researchers says that amid climate change, only 11 of the previous 19 sites for Winter Olympics could host the Games in the coming decades. (Srdjan Zivulovic/Reuters)

Sochi, which hosts next month's Games in Russia, would not have made the cut by around 2050.               

“We went from all 19 cities being ‘climate reliable’ today, even Vancouver and Sochi, to going down to 11 of them,” said Waterloo Prof. Daniel Scott, lead author of the study and Canada Research Chair in Change and Global Tourism. “The number was almost cut in half by mid-century.”

The research was conducted by the University of Waterloo and Austria’s Management Centre Innsbruck.

Based on conservative climate models, 2010 host city Vancouver would not even have the proper climate to welcome winter sporting events by the midway point of this century. California's Squaw Valley, chosen for the 1960 Winter Olympics, will likewise probably be too warm by the 2050s to deliver the kind of natural ice and snow used for alpine and other winter sporting events.

“Weather has challenged the Winter Olympics for years,” Scott said. “Unfortunately, under the warmer scenarios, far fewer places that have hosted the games in the past would still be able to do so.”

Scientists predict that average February temperatures in past Winter Olympic locations are expected to climb as much as 2.1 C by 2050. By the last half of the century, temperatures will be up 2.7 to 4.4 C.

The only "climate reliable" cities by the 2080s onwards would be Calgary, France's Albertville, Italy's Cortina d'Ampezzo, Switzerland's St. Moritz, Japan's Sapporo and Salt Lake City in the U.S.

Scott said global warming is threatening “the cultural legacy of the world’s celebration of winter sport” as organizers scramble for technological solutions.

“They’ve put in different things to try to manage weather risks — moving things indoors, refrigerating luge tracks, putting in snow-making,” he said. “It has limits. We saw the limits at the Vancouver Games. It was too warm to even make the snow.”

Too warm for snow-making

Other internationally renowned sites such as France's Chamonix, which hosted in the first Winter Olympics in 1924, and Grenoble, which hosted in 1968, would not have had appropriate climates for outdoor winter events by 2050, according to the report.

Up until four years ago, 19 previous host cities would have confidently been able to set the stage for the Winter Games, based on climates from 1981 and onward.

But the researchers say that within the next four decades, the only climatically suitable host cities are likely to be:

  • Albertville, France (1992)
  • Calgary (1988)
  • Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy (1956)
  • St. Moritz (1948)
  • Salt Lake City, U.S. (2002)
  • Sapporo, Japan (1972)
  • Lake Placid, U.S. (1980)
  • Lillehammer, Norway (1994)
  • Nagano, Japan (1998)
  • Turin, Italy (2006)
  • Innsbruck, Austria (1976)

Beyond losing prospective winter venues, Scott said athletics will also suffer from a warmer planet.

Under the warmer scenarios, far fewer places that have hosted the games in the past would still be able to do so.- Daniel Scott, University of Waterloo- Daniel Scott, University of Waterloo

“If you can't host a Winter Games in a certain area, odds are your winter sports participation is going to decline as well,” he said. “How many people are going to be engaged in skiing or other sports if fewer places in the world have alpine skiing programs?”

The study used two indicators to determine whether a city was climate reliable, climatically high risk, or not climatically reliable for outdoor sports competitions.

The first temperature-dependent indicator was a location’s ability to maintain at least 30 cm of snowpack, the threshold for smooth skiing terrain. The second indicator was based on daily minimum temperatures at the main competition elevation for ideal ice and snow conditions.

Last April, a delegation of 75 Olympic medallists urged U.S. president Barack Obama to take action on climate change.

"As professional athletes representing a community of 23 million winter sports enthusiasts, we are witnessing climate change first-hand,” the group wrote in a letter. “Last year was the warmest year on record, and once again, we’re currently experiencing another winter season of inconsistent snow and questionable extremes. Without a doubt, winter is in trouble."

A chart shows 19 past Winter Olympics host cities and whether they would be able to feasibly host another Winter Games by the end of this century amid warming global temperatures. A larger version of this graphic can be viewed in the report, which is linked in this story. (University of Waterloo)


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